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Chomolungma: Backstage West

Man against man, man against woman, man against himself, man against the mountain – these are universal and ancient mythological themes for the drama. In Chomolungma, man vs. mountain contains all the others in the opportunities it presents for exploration into mythology, spiritual expansion, confrontation with the elements, high stakes competition and human nature. Stephen Legawiec’s play makes eloquent use of the tools man has created to explore the nature of the gods.

Seven adventurers, led by Damianus (Lance Guest), charismatic third son of a European emperor, merge cultures to tackle the world’s highest mountain Chomolungma (a.k.a Everest). Led and served by three Sherpas (Bobby Nish, Ray Chang, Ogie Zulueta) Estan (Dean Purvis), the doctor Triam (Michael Krawic), and Canstada (Nele Snoeck) a feminist adventurer before her time, are determined to challenge the goddess of the mountain (Constance Hsu). Enveloped by the haunting mysticism of the Buddhist bell chants and lion dances, incense offered prayers, and the reluctant loyal support of their loved ones waiting in the village, the travelers see the unwelcoming face of the forbidding mountain as both a challenge and a magnet.

Auden’s The Ascent of F-6 and Ted Talley’s Terra Nova played in the same arena, but neither of them approached the intelligence or the diversity of Legawiec’s conception, which manages to embrace the disciplines of dance, drama, music, romance, and mysticism in a totally natural way, forcing none into an uncomfortable or arbitrary role but rather forcing us to rearrange our points of view.

Rimpoche, the mystic (Muni Zano), has commonplace humor in his makeup, as well as deep spiritualism. Damianus’ wife, Chayla (Gwendoline Yeo), reminisces about their wedding day as she plays the Chinese zither and sings of her love for her husband. Later, she appears to Damianus in a hallucination as a belly dancer, luring him to fight against snow ecstasy to save himself. Another wife, Tashi (Dawn Saito), gets steadily more intoxicated as she waits for her husband to return. The doctor Triam is a crude and loutish vaudevillian until he’s tamed by an avalanche. These unexpected and all-too-human cameos make the play sing when it might have sunk into the mire of unrelieved tragedy, and dance where it might have stumbled into morbidity.

If Legawiec’s dialogue is contemporary, sometimes prosaic, occasionally over-explanatory, it nevertheless serves the noble purpose of demystifying concepts that are not generally embraced in modern theatre, or accepted as currency in our non-literary culture. The balance is in the poetry of the dance and chants of the deities of the mythical kingdom that shelters in the shadow of the mountain. Tim Gittings and Charles Sharp provide percussion and music on the dizu and the souna.

Sterling performances, well-directed ambience (direction, set design, and original music are by Legawiec), great costumes by Robert Velasquez, inventive masks by Beckie Kravetz, and useful lighting by Lief Gantvoort make this all work.

Madeleine Shaner, © BackStage West, April 15, 1999


Chomolungma: Los Angeles Times

"Where all too many theatrical presentations pay lip service to multi-disciplinary art forms, writer-director-composer-designer-comparative mythologist Stephen Legawiec does something meaningful with them.

Legawiec’s Ziggurat Theatre (formerly the Gilgamesh Theatre) has garnered well deserved acclaim for its evocative weaving of disparate elements into rich, expertly-staged explorations of the human psyche. The company’s latest effort, "Chomlungma" (the Tibetan name for Everest), transforms the fictionalized chronicle of an ill-fated expedition up the world’s highest peak into a beautiful, haunting mythic quest.

"Chomolungma’s" mountain climbers convincingly span two cultures – the ambitious, achievement obsessed Europeans (Lance Guest, Dean Purvis, Nele Snoeck, and Michael Krawic) and the more reflective, spiritual Tibetans they enlist to guide and assist them (Bobby Nish, Ray Chang, Ogie Zulueta). With little appreciation of the brute, elemental forces they’re tackling, the naïve adventurers find themselves in a desperate struggle for survival after an avalanche cuts off their return path. This point of no return is both physical and psychological, forcing them to abandon their allegiances to countries, families and most cherished beliefs – a worldly leave-taking presided over by the impartial dancing goddess of the mountain (Constance Hsu).

Meanwhile the parallel stories of the Tibetan villagers (Muni Zano, Peter Choi, Dawn Saito, Gina Chai, and Derek Delgado) down below, envelop the journey in a dense tapestry of chant, narrative and song (with musical accompaniment by Tim Gittings and Charles Sharp). A high point of the production is an eloquent ballad sung by the expedition leader’s wife (Gwendolin Yeo, who accompanies herself on the Chinese zither). While its characters are drawn with pinpoint, individual precision by a uniformly talented cast, "Chomolungma" remains an ensemble piece in which the collective sum is greater than its individual components. That Legawiec manages to depict human beings acting in accordance with their most unfailingly noble impulses – without lapsing into sentimental romanticism – is a big part of the magic of this very special piece.

Philip Brandes, © Los Angeles Times, April 9, 1999

Ziggurat Theatre Ensemble
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